CounterBalance Theater's The Odyssey (Sept. 24 and 25)

Welcome Week Kicked Off with The Odyssey (written by undergraduate Isis Huang)

CounterBalance Theater welcomed the new school year with a dynamic rendition of The Odyssey, translating the literary classic into a visceral visual narrative through the dialect of movement. This physical adaptation of the Homeric epic depicts the tumultuous, homebound journey of King Odysseus after the Trojan War. While CounterBalance does use dialogue, the company promotes a kinetic, collaborative art form that communicates scenic elements through the body of the performer, thereby unifying the artist with the physical universe of the story.

Two performances plus a 5 minute preview at the 2015 Convocation were sponsored by Illuminations during Welcome Week. Over 500 students plus faculty, staff and community members attended the free performances at the Claire Trevor Theater on September 24 and 25. This program was a collaboration with Humanities Core, which includes Homer’s Iliad in its cycle on “War.”

Upon entering the theatre, one could see blue light pooled onto the center of the stage like a miniature ocean. The encircling, muted red light at once evoked the blood-soaked war-grounds left by the Achaeans and the deity’s wrath that was to come. Curtains, black as the Underworld, bordered the space with folds like columns from a temple. An eerie music played (composed by Mark Caspary), a melody akin to waves echoing beneath a rattling and the occasional drone. Two stone-gray benches and what appeared to be candles stood as the only props. The actors depicted the scenes with their bodies, whether by assembling their kneeling forms into a mountainous terrain or running in concentric circles to imitate the currents of a whirlpool. Their simple garb of sea green or blue tunics and black tights enabled not only freedom of movement, but also freedom of identity. Save for the actor playing Odysseus (Zachary Houston), each actor undertook a protean range of dramatic personas. For example, a single performer can take on the roles of an Achaean sailor, the sea god Poseidon, the dead hero Ajax, and a sheep wandering inside a Cyclops’ cave. Keeping track of who played whom proved manageable, however, thanks to the minimal number of cast members and the consistency in which the actors reprised their recurring characters.  

Body placement allowed this dramatic piece to achieve the cinematic quality of zooming, such as when one performer carried another upside-down on her back to depict the entire figure of the Cyclops Polyphemus, as if viewed through a full shot. Upon separating, the two actors then bent at the side towards each other and interlocked their outstretched hands into a close-up outline of the Cyclops’ eye while a third performer stood in the middle, his head taking the place of the pupil. The eye blinked whenever the arms came down.

Annie Loui, artistic director of CounterBalance, made her pre-show appearance onstage and said, in response to the welcoming applause, “I love it when you applaud and nothing’s happening.” She later reappeared for the post-performance “talk-back” in which she, along with Illuminations director Julia Lupton, actors Zachary Houston and Colin Nesmith, and musical composer Mark Caspary, answered questions raised by the audience.